While I'll be the first guy to talk up the virtues of living in Northern California in regards to the insane bounties of the freshest food readily available pretty much everywhere you eat or shop, there's one thing I'll easily cede to everyone on the east coast — they kick our asses when it comes to the bagel battle. I mean really, it's not even a battle.
The east coast, with areas like Brooklyn, NY and New England providing two of the most well-known blueprints for what many have come to know and love about bagels, has always been a place where no matter what I'm doing out there, I need to get in my fix. Within the last year though, there's been a noticeable shift out here, with legit artisan bagel shops and delis popping up all throughout the bay area. Brothers Jason and Mark Scott recently launched the brick & mortar location of the Authentic Bagel Company, bringing their unique blend of east meets west coast style bagels to Oakland, CA. We sat down over a couple beers at the nearby watering hole Heinhold's First & Last Chance Saloon and talked about their place in the burgeoning Oakland scene, New England vs. Brooklyn style bagels, their controversial “pizza bagel,” and why you just can't seem to find a good bagel on the west coast.
Tell me a little bit about the Authentic Bagel Company. Why did you guys decide to name it that?
Mark: It kind of started off last year's around mother's day, we were working at a casual dining place in the Montclair area (of Oakland) that isn't usually open for breakfast or lunch. On Mother's Day we decided to open up for brunch, everything we do we try to make from scratch, and we decided to put a bagel sandwich on the menu. We went online, did a bunch of research on how to make a bagel, etc. It was our first time ever making a bagel so it was kind of fun, and it was something new for us. About a week later we had some people come back in and ask where they could get the actual bagels from the bagel sandwich, and we let them know they were made in house and if they wanted, we could sell them some, a dozen, couple dozen, etc. So we started selling dozens out of the restaurant, and then about a month later we had some people who wanted to start seeing our bagels at cafes, so Jay and I got on foot and literally starting going door to door so to speak to some of the cafes in the area about selling our bagels. About a year later, here we are with our own brick & mortar business, being relatively successful at it.
So you guys were literally biking around your bagels to people initially? That's so old school.
M: Yeah, it was. That's why we maintain our delivery service now, to maintain that old school feel. Goes along with our theme of the Authentic Bagel Company. Not only is our recipe authentic, but we like that old school, milkman delivery kind of thing. We kind of figured that if we're already delivering bagels to Oakland, Berkeley, etc., and we're en route, why not drop them off at someone's place too? Opens up the market a bit for us.
How did you come up with the recipe — was it passed down, did you come up with it yourselves, etc? You mentioned looking online, did you just troubleshoot that until you came up with something you felt was perfect?
Jason: We grew up on the east coast so I mean, we've eaten and have been connoisseurs of bagels forever. We're both Jewish too so obviously, our parents are very strict on their bagel habits. It's one of those things were we knew what it was supposed to taste like, we knew what it was supposed to be like, etc, so we took what we knew from that, what we found online, and from some mentors of ours, we just started recipe testing. Our recipe has changed like, 150,000 times until we figured out where we wanted it to be.
So… what did you do with all those bagels that didn't make the cut? And for future reference, I'm happy to be a food guinea pig…
J: Haha. We ate them, we didn't like them, but there's a bread kitchen down the road from where I live so we donate lots of stuff there. But yeah, lots of troubleshooting.
M: When we were troubleshooting & were doing research, we wanted to go back to when bagels were first invented. And we looked up recipes, method of prep, looked up how the bagel came about, and we really wanted to learn about the bagel. Basically just trying to find out as much info as we could. Looking in the Bread Bible, went to a couple different cookbooks, and basically just the fundamentals of the bagel, what to do, what not to do, etc. The ratios are for sugars to salts to flours, natural yeast vs. starter dough vs. dry active yeast, refrigerate for 24 hours & retard it, or proof then bake it. Do you want to boil or steam it, etc. So when we came up with our full recipe, it's actually a derivative of one of the original bagel recipes when they were first invented back in the 1800s.
So there isn't like a definitive bagel recipe then. Everyone is trying to flip it, do their own thing, etc.
M: Yeah, it's like a cookie. You can have a chocolate chip cookie, an oatmeal raisin cookie, cake chocolate chip cookie, etc. Each bagel shop, chef, baker, cafe, whatever, has their own recipe. That's what's great about food, and bagels in general. Two boiled bagels for example, can still taste completely different from each other because of technique, or ingredients, or whatever.
So what's the deal, why is it so difficult to find a good bagel on the west coast?
J: Well, you know, people cut corners. With the way the economy is, there's lots of labor restraints, and boiling a bagel the way we do it, it's a process that takes a little more technique, a little more knowledge, more experience, and all these little things you have to pay for. I think that back when bagels first got here in New York, that was the one and only place to get a bagel. The further they got out west, I think the process just changed, became more of a steaming process, and mainly because that is more cost-effective way to do it compared to boiling a bagel. Boiling — how we do it — really adds that chewy, crunchy texture.
When I was there the other day, I noticed quite a number of cars pulling up to your place and ordering dozens, etc. Seems like people really want to seek out a quality bagel when they find it, yeah?
M: Social marketing — really works! Seriously though, just tweeting, putting stuff up on our facebook, that's pretty much what we do. And we already have people coming from San Francisco, Marin, Walnut Creek, Concord, Benecia, etc. When you say you have a good bagel and you actually do have a good bagel, people will come to you. People are so particular about bagels, so when they find them to their liking, that's huge. Since we opened up the retail side, we go through anywhere from 150-500 bagels a day. Last Sunday we sold out of the 200 bagels we had made by 11:45. Didn't expect that.
It seems like there's a little flurry of legit bagel shops opening up around the bay area right now. Why do you think that is?
J: Long overdue. We had a bagel renaissance in the late 80s/early 90s when they came out to the West Coast, and there were a couple good places, but then it tapered off a bit and you started to see mainly scones, muffins, croissants, etc., at coffee shops. They didn't really have the savory breakfast option. And I think just now after like, 16 years, people are just fed up with not having a good bagel shop around here. And also, the bay area has lots of transplants, you know, people who used to live on the east coast who just gave up on finding a good bagel after awhile. They've been waiting and waiting, and now it's a very good time.
M: What's cool about it is that each bagel shop is unique. Beauty's Bagel (in Oakland) is Montreal style, which means they're wood-fired. You have Schmendricks in San Francisco, which is traditional Brooklyn style bagels. With our bagel, we've taken east coast meets west coast with a sourdough starter/base, but, they are boiled. So that's our niche, and everyone has their own following. It's great.
Something I'm curious about — New England style bagels vs. New York style bagels. What's the difference?
M: From what we know, New England style bagels use a starter dough and the crust isn't quite as crispy. It's also a little denser. Brooklyn style bagels have a crispy exterior, doesn't use a starter dough.
What is a starter dough?
J: It's a natural form of yeast that we've made ourselves. Basically a living culture.
M: Basically a flower water mix. Our starter dough happens to be a little over a year now.
You guys recently opened up shop in the Jack London Square area of Oakland. Why did you guys decide to do Oakland, CA vs. somewhere else in the bay?
J: I live in Oakland. I don't think anywhere else is better. You have San Francisco right across the bay and they've got their own thing going on over there, and we have our own thing going on over here. I feel like Oakland is on the uprise, Oakland is doing the new stuff. And so many people are looking to live here now, lots of new businesses, etc. Can't picture us being anywhere else, especially when it comes to a place like Oakland which sometimes gets a bad wrap in lieu of all of the new kinds of praise it's getting. But if you are living here, if you're actually familiar with it, what's not to love about it? Tons of new restaurants, bakeries, donut shops, etc., all coming over here now. San Francisco has been at the top for so long and Oakland is trying to get there, and we're just trying to help it. We want to be a part of all this.
M: I also feel like Oakland is kind of the city of the working man in a way. Everyone is here to help each other out, the vibe is very distinct with that. Everyone wants to support stuff in Oakland because it's part of the identity here. Whereas in San Francisco, everyone is trying to compete against each other. Like when we were living on the east coast, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there. Nobody helps each other out, everything is cutthroat. Whereas out here, like the Beauty's Bagels guys were like “anytime you need anything, just give us a holler.” It's common bond between all the small businesses in Oakland that's like, “hey let's help each other out because if we don't, then Oakland is not going to succeed.” It's a great vibe.
Your bio mentioned that you guys are from New England. Can you tell me a little bit about your backgrounds there with food? How you got into it, how you got into bagels specifically, etc?
J: Both of us went to Johnson Wales in Providence, one of the top culinary schools in the country, got our degrees there. At that point Mark was working at some of the best restaurants in the state, and I had been trailing in his footsteps for awhile, learning from him. When he was 23 he opened up his own restaurant, white tablecloth, fine dining, etc. It ended up getting Best New Restaurant after a year, second year won Best Restaurant in the RI, and at that point, Mark decided to go his own way after some disagreements with his partner. He sold his part of the business to his partner at the time then moved out to CA. I stayed out there and started working at another Italian restaurant, which subsequently also won some awards. We worked some with great people and under some great chefs over the years.
And you did food since you've been out in CA, yeah?
M: Yeah, I started as a sous chef at Skates On the Bay and worked by way up there to an Executive Chef role for the RUI company. When that happened, I needed to find a replacement so who better to call then my prodigy brother. And that got him out to CA. So I went to Portland, OR for RUI for a year and a half, but no friends, no family, missed the Bay Area, so I came back and Jay and I had the opportunity to open up another restaurant again here in Oakland. We did that for about three years, and that's where the bagels kind of come in.
Sounds very organic.
M: Definitely. Scott and I aren't pastry chefs, bakers, break makers, etc. We were Executive Chefs by trade and had made some breads & stuff like that, but nothing more than that. We just kind of stumbled upon it. We hit a point where we hit a point where we could plateau off with the bagel thing in our previous situation, or we could make the jump full on and give it a go. And that was the best decision we've could have made.
J: There were a couple bumps in the road, you know, with a previous partner, that kind of thing.
M: But already now, we're at the point where the bagels are starting to sell themselves. People wanting them in their cafes, potential new accounts, that kind of thing. It's a great thing to see for us, it's an accomplishment.
Related question. I've only had your breakfast sandwich with sausage, cheese, etc. But I'm curious about your thoughts about cream cheese on a bagel. What exactly is the right amount? In New York they don't hold back and it's often oozing out of the sides & bottoms when biting into one. Whereas out here, sometimes it can be too thin where the toasted bagel is coming through the cheese.
M: We have a happy medium.
J: An inch thick can be a little much for some people, but I mean you need to know there's cream cheese going on. If an inch thick is the standard in New York, I'd say we're about a half-inch thick.
M: We're going to go with whatever the guests want too. We ask if people want just a smear, or a lot. But for us we'd want it to be a half inch thick. We want it to be a little messy.
J: We want it in your beard, on your fingers, etc. I do any way. What better way to savor it?
How did you guys come up with the rest of your current menu?
J: Standard stuff in New England. When I couldn't find a bacon, egg, & cheese on a bagel I was like, what the hell? Every thing was on an English muffin. There was no real hangover sandwich.
M: It's the stuff we wanted to eat the morning after watching a Red Sox game or a Patriots game. Something to soak up that alcohol.
J: I don't think I've ever seen an English muffin breakfast sandwich on the East Coast.
I personally do not like english muffins at all.
J: Me either. They don't get crispy, they're soft, etc.
One of the things I'm intrigued to try from you guys is this so-called “pizza bagel.” What is that about?
M: We've caught a little bit of flack about that from these so-called bagel connoisseurs. The Jewish New York traditionalists, etc. It's our pepperoni pizza bagel. And Jason and I came up with it because you know, we're in California, and you have to be able to venture out a bit, try something different. Originally with our concept of the Authentic Bagel Company, we wanted to be doing things like, stuffed bagels. With things like sausage & cheese already in the actual bagel, so all you would have to do is put an egg on it and it's done. We ultimately realized we wanted to keep our bagels traditional. However we did take our original stuffed bagel idea, and decided to make it into a pepperoni pizza. So we've taken pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, and our homemade pizza sauce and we mix it into the bagel. Kind of like a cinnamon raisin bagel but instead of cinnamon & raisins, it's the pizza stuff.
J: When making the bagel, we omit the water and instead add pizza sauce.
M: We'll slice it & toast it, put mozzarella cheese & fresh basil from my garden on it, and you have a pizza sandwich. It's like eating a pizza without the mess.
Apologies in advance if you see my ass stumbling in, hung over as hell one morning demanding one of these things.
M: We want that!
J: But that's what it's for!
[The controversial pizza bagel]
When it comes to bagel making, if you had to choose one, what is the one ingredient that is most important to what you guys do?
J: Gotta go with either the salt or the malt. Probably the salt.
M: I think for our bagels in particular, it's the starter dough. It's temperamental and it's taken over a year to develop. If you're talking general bagels on the whole, I'd agree with Jay on the salt. Makes it pop.
J: And true with our bagels, our starter dough sets us apart from any other bagel maker.
If you had to choose one kind of bagel you guys make, what's the one kind that you think someone should absolutely try?
J: My favorite bagel in general is the sesame seed bagel, but the bagel I hold closest to my heart at our shop is the everything bagel. It sells the most, and we have a specific seed on top that I don't think anyone else uses which makes it unique. And it's just classic. We sell double the amount of those than everything else.
M: The everything bagel is the most popular one, I agree. Ours is very distinct too. My personal favorite though is the salt bagel though. And I used to hate salt bagels too. But there's something about the flavor of ours is great. And also too… our pepperoni pizza bagel. And yes I know it's not standard, traditional, etc., but it's a great & unique bagel. Fun & different.
Aside from your own shop, what is one other place where you would say you had an amazing bagel?
M: H&H or Katz in New York, but outside of that it's really hit or miss.
J: New York is a classic area of course, there's some good places in Providence, etc. And the good thing is that in a place like New York, you can go to H&H or Katz but each one is slightly different and has it's own thing going on.
Kind of like the bagel culture that's developing out here finally.
M: The interesting thing is that, say, you might rather have a bagel & cream cheese from Shop A. But, you might want sausage, egg & cheese bagel from Shop B. Or I'd rather go to Shop C for a turkey sandwich. Each new place here an serve a different purpose depending on what you want.
If bagels made music, what kind of music would they make?
J: Classic rock. Every time time I eat a bagel I think back to sitting on the couch growing up, watching the Browns getting their asses kicked while I was eating a bagel with cream cheese. But yeah, it's not my favorite genre of music I would say but, when I eat a bagel, it has that nostalgic feel like classic rock does.
M: I agree with the classic rock comparison, but for different reasons. Any age can get into classic rock. You can have a 3-year old rocking out to the Beach Boys, or the Beatles, and you have a 90 year old grandmother who actually saw the Beatles in concert or something. Same thing with a bagel. We have a photo on our Facebook page, we have a picture of a 3-year old scarfing down a bagel next to his grandparents, who are also scarfing down bagels. Bagels really fit everyone. You know, some restaurants are older, from the previous generation. There's the hip new trendy spots. But a bagel, everyone can eat a bagel. Classic rock, everyone can listen to it. And there's lots of styles to both too. With bagels you have New York, west coast, New England, Montreal, etc., and poppy seed, sesame, salt, etc. Like classic rock too, it has the softer stuff, the heavier stuff, a very wide variety of stuff that lots of people can like.